Thursday, November 09, 2006

Community and Growth

Ordinary Time

I've started reading Jean Vanier's Community and Growth. I'm finding it... provocative... on a personal level. So far he's talking about how people in our culture find their security and sense of identity through accomplishment in the absence of belonging and acceptance. One notion that's resonating with me particularly well is that living as part of a real community on a day-to-day basis is going to show us how really unloving we are:
"As we live with people daily, all the anger, hatred, jealousies and fear of others, also the need to dominate, to run away or to hide, seem to rise up ... While we are alone, we could believe we loved everyone. Now that we are with others, living with them all the time, we realize how incapable we are of loving, how much we deny to others, how closed in on ourselves we are" (p.26).
So many of us, when we begin to have really deep friendships, realize how terrifically bad we are at loving. It's not just us - it's all of us. We have to learn to stop protecting ourselves and learn instead to keep open hearts and risk getting hurt. The trick is that many people don't find out how bad they are - and therefore never get good at it - because they don't change their lives so as to let people in that closely. After all, how much easier is it to live with such a personal distance (even if we live and work and play alongside others) that we don't cause offense or get offended ourselves?

I am convinced that it is the work of the Evil One that anyone would live really alone. Humans were created to be in communion with God and one another. I think immediately of two kind of isolation: one can live alone, and share a household with no one, or live with others but remain closed off, to keep one's own counsel, and to really live only for oneself.

I am trying to live counter to that kind of culture that is everywhere in our society and our churches. I have insisted that my own church be a primary "point of reference" in the way I live my life. I don't attend the Liturgy because I "get something out of it" (not that I don't), but because I'm dedicated to being with those people in that deeply meaningful way. And do you know what? Enacting that dedication, moving it from theory to concrete practice, is transformative for me. It makes me more concretely and practically God's, moving from being the overseer and director of my own life to being homo ecclesiasticus.

We aren't together, either my church or the people in my household, because of common affinities or interests. Those things are there, and those things help, but we have been called to be with one another and to learn to love one another well. Only when we learn to make one another a steady point of reference, choosing to deal with those people on a regular basis and to take completely for granted that they have a place in our lives, are we going to be the kind of community that Jesus is shaping us into. That's what cooperation with Jesus looks like.

So what do you think?

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+ Alan said...

Very good stuff. Definitely, we are designed to be formed together into the Image of Christ. I do not believe it is even possible to be so otherwise. Not that it's harder, but that it's impossible.

And yes, I do believe living alone to be a very handicapping situation for character development. It's more of a sacrifice for some than others to choose not to live alone, but I think we're called to the sacrifice.

All this is good, UNLESS we begin even using these criteria as a way to look down on our siblings who may not be living this out as well as we are.

jets said...

When I was younger, or even a highschool graduate I knew I was nervous about love, I fumbled, I failed and I ultimately realized I had horrible role-models as to what unconditional love is. I first thought maybe it was because I was never in love. But I realized the fallacy of that thought: I should have had plenty of feelings of unconditional love. It should have been easy.

Our society is good at teaching limiting emotions (anger, hate, jealousy, deprivation, etc), and placing restrictions on Unlimiting resourceful emotions like Joy, Love, Excitement, Realization, etc. There are even large groups in our society that teach limitations on our love for God, and our relationship with him.

Realizing that I tried to model what unconditional love is, and what God would consider a resolute unconditional love. I applied this new model to my romantic relationship, and my closest friends. I quickly realized a flaw in my model. I misunderstood unconditional love. I thought it was loving completely, and being understanding of circumstance and the human element. I was wrong, I didn't realize unconditional love is loving in every condition, without expectation. Even though it is an unwaivering love unconditional love still has to fit in to a human nature. I quickly realized I was stuck in a hypocritical situation: Although I was in a relationship and loving unconditionally despite verbal and unfaithful abuses, I wasn't truly loving my partner by allowing him to continue the abuse. In fact, I wasn't reinforcing my boundaries and loving me, nor was I showing him love because by sticking by him I was allowing him to learn "abuse is okay." I was reinforcing a hurtful belief system, and model of love he learned from his parents.

To Summarize, It's my opinion we suck at love due to some societal teachings, we didn't have many models of unconditional love, and it was pretty hard for me, an intelligent person to refine a model that worked for me. It's no wonder some people succumb to limiting emotions so easily and American citizens are so emotionally unhealthy (I don't mean depression... I mean they literally dont choose healthy emotions like love, joy, realization, ecstasy, acceptance)

I believe relationships help us on our path to learn ourselves, have another point of view, and refine our character. That isn't to say there aren't other ways to refine our character, or relationships that aren't romantic that achieve the same goals.


Not here anymore said...

I'm trying to think of how to form this question/comment. Bear with me.

I understand that being formed as a community is not designated only during the time we purposely come together (Sundays, Saturdays, what have you). I don't think that formation as a community only happens when you're physically with other people - I think it's an ongoing process that happens in you when you're alone...and in you in the midst of communtity...and in you at all points in between.

So, I'm not sure what living alone has to do with that.

Particularly pertaining to Alan's comment, I guess it depends on how you're defining "living" or "live." Do you mean living, physically? Or living, metaphysically? Or both?

On another note, we have to be careful with this whole living thing (metaphysically speaking). How much do we depend on the community for our formation v. taking personal responsibility for it, as well?
This can promote laziness and disregard if we are not careful.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. I often face the temptation of locking my heart in the box, as Lewis puts it, but I must constantly be reminded that risk is ever present and necessary if there is to be love given and returned.

katie said...

Good stuff Kyle.
I'm going to try to compile some thoughts in an email sometime soon.

Literary Networks and Dissenting Print Culture said...

"one can live alone, and share a household with no one, or live with others but remain closed off, to keep one's own counsel, and to really live only for oneself."

Great post, Kyle. It takes a lot of patience, kindness and openness to make a communal household work - but having lived in such a way for 3 years, I can testify to the importance of being open. I've got myself into quite a few scrapes while sharing with others - not least of all legally! - but I don't regret it at all.

I also think it's true what you say about being shown how unloving we are. When we live with people who are very different to us it forces us to think more about how we relate and whether we can't be more loving and forgiving. It also functions as a huge mirror that we hold up to ourselves - not only what pisses us off about someone else but how we behave towards others. It's a learning process but a very valuable one.

There's so much emphasis nowadays on getting alone with God and retreating away by oneself. That in itself can be a really good thing but, if I'm honest, living in community and 'being' in community has been the way in which I have learned the most important lessons in life. I think it holds true that community can help to improve how we love one another regardless of whether we are naturally introspective or extrovert.

Kyle said...

Folks, I'm very appreciative of these thoughtful and provocative responses.

Alan, that's an important point. I think we've got to remember that Christian community is a gift that God gives us out of his grace, and never an accomplishment we can brag about. Like so much else in the economy of salvation, it's nothing we did.

Brian, welcome back! You bring up something important; I think "unconditional love" involves working for what's best for others, even (and sometimes especially if) they disagree with you about just what "best" means. Letting somebody get away unchallenged with whatever they wish is definitely not loving.


Allison, while I agree with you that formation can and does happen when we physically live alone, living with other people is a huge threshold to cross. The difference is being with people when and how we choose as opposed to being with the same people on a regular basis whether we like it or not. When we learn to love one another well not just because we feel like it, but we choose to do that even when we don't because it's expressive of our own deepest commitments, that's a different kind of growth, and a major change from the way our society (and our churches) teach us to think about ourselves.

When I choose to live with people, I am continually reminded of and formed in my decision not to "be the boss of me." When we live with others on purpose, we have to adjust to them all the time. That's why many people break their marriages or choose to live alone - they don't want to do that continual adjusting.

So yes, I mean "physically" living. Living in reference to others only gets meaningful if it directs our bodily practices, rather than being a mere abstract theory. Again, I can sit alone in my room and think I love everybody, but I'll never know until I go and take the risk of being with them.

And no, I don't really think this can promote laziness. Living with people is like sandpaper, and it's only in an individualized (and thereby deeply heretical) Christianity that we have to constantly work to orchestrate our own spiritual growth. It's in the Church's DNA to change people, and to be changed itself, so long as its living as a real community.

Thanks, Rob and Katie.

I think you're dead-on, Jen. We can only really practice a holy solitude if we live with others, and we can only live holy with others if there's a certain practice of solitude. Thanks for chiming in. :0)

Not here anymore said...

I guess my comment was more directed toward Alan.

It just seemed a little too hardcore.

"...I do believe living alone to be a very handicapping situation for character development."

Alan, if in this particular comment you mean physically living alone and you don't mean being emotionally and mentally isolated from people, I disagree. Could you explain your comment? Maybe I'm not getting what you meant.

"All this is good, UNLESS we begin even using these criteria as a way to look down on our siblings who may not be living this out as well as we are."

Alan, you're not an arrogant man, I know...but that last part sounds arrogant to me. Could you explain that, as well?

+ Alan said...

Oh, this is where you're "attacking me." Well then.. Anyway, I'm not really understanding how it sounds arrogant Allison. If you mean by that - and took what I said elsewhere - to mean we can never point out things that ought to be in the Christian community, then I'd certainly disagree that that's arrogant. It's teaching. It could be spiritual direction if taken that way. It's stating something plainly as it perhaps needs to be stated in a very individualistic society.

I'll stand by what I said, and Kyle did a pretty good job of explaining much of it in his last comment. I do mean physically living alone is handicapping to one's spiritual development - to one's holistic development as a person. I know people have the "right" to live with or without whom they want, and I'm certainly not going to "punnish" anyone for choosing to live alone. I will say to them, if they happen to be someone I have a "right" to say something to, that they would do well to consider the world of formation that they are missing out on by living in this way.

That's what I'm concerned about Allison - their formation into Christ's Image. I have no interest in who's better than another, who's greater in my eyes or God's eyes or anything like that. If I say something like what I said there, it's because I genuinely have reasons that I can talk about as to why it is probably holding someone back in some way, and that I wish they'd consider another way.

Does this mean we never have "time alone" or solitude? No. That would be unhealthy on the other side. But there is something about not being able to fully hide away from others that comes with living with others. Sure, go on retreat, go to your room, to the woods, etc. for a bit, but don't set yourself up with a way to permanently hide.

I know it's very uncomfortable for some to live with other people. Sure it is. It's pretty uncomfortable for me to live with my 5 person family (6 altogether) many times. I'm just saying there is something about that that moves us toward unselfishness. Again, I'm not about condemning anyone for living alone. I am about pointing something out that some people may never have thought of though - in this culture, in this society, so much about the self, the individual.

I would challenge my friends, and I have, to try hard to objectively come up with good reasons to live alone (in the context of Christian community life). Something to think about. I'm certainly not saying I'm the best person at it, that everyone needs to look at me and see how wonderful I am because I live with people. I'm as much of an example as I am I guess, but that's not my point. A lot of the things we are called to do and be in the life of Christian Transformation are "hard-core" - OK, they are in one way - they get less hard-core as we go along. Wheew, OK I'll hush now. Talkin' bout important stuff here. Hope that made sense Allison. Peace to you.

Kyle said...

That kicked ass. I'm just sayin.'

Not here anymore said...

My intention was never to pin one view (Alan) against the other (me).

The comment you made, Alan, that I was refering to gave off the impression (at least, to me) that you think your way of community is best...and that other "ways" are less legitimate. After reading your last comment over again several times, I actually wouldn't call it an impression - this IS how you've spoken (or typed, in any case).

Yes, of course you give others the freedom to do what's best for them. What kind of person would you be if you didn't? But what they do with that freedom is detrimental to their character development if they choose any other way than the way you've found best.

That is what I meant by arrogance.

+ Alan said...

Well, sorry about that. I guess I think that's an unfortunate definition of arrogance. In such a definition, no way is ever permitted to be more helpful than any other way. Not only that, it's not even allowed to be considered more healthy or helpful.

"Better" is not the "best" word I think to use in a conversation like this. It's not about me feeling superior because I'm so smart that I've figured out the best way to do anything - go me! That would be quite a bit closer to arrogant.

I don't feel it's out of line at all to lay out what one is convicted about as being healthy and helpful for one's spiritual development. There's a lot behind what I said, and none of it has anything to do with me having a desire to sit on top of the pile with my "best way" badge on. Now, I can say that, sure, and I suppose someone, ultimately, would have to know me in order to believe me or not.

Not sure if that's helpful or not. I just got back to see the comments again. Peace to all in this house.

Kyle said...

Well said, Abbot. Cheers.

Further comments and questions about the post are welcome. Character attacks are not.

Not here anymore said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
beth cioffoletti said...

I like Vanier's thoughts on Community and Growth, and I find that living with others has certainly helped me through a lot of my blind spots that I would have never made it through alone.

I also think that communion with others goes deeper than the day-to-day challenges of living together.

People who have been married for a long time get to a place of *communion*, not because they have worked out the problems, or because they have become less grumpy and irritable, but because, somehow through their commitment to each other, they reached a place of knowing that their individual needs are not the most important thing.

I know some people who live alone, not by choice, but by social stigma or personal idiosyncracy and woundedness. And yet they also have become less selfish and more loving as time goes on. They may still be grumpy and unable to live with others on a day to day basis, but does that really say anything about their spirituality?

One woman, in particular that I have in mind, has mental problems - yet I call her a "sidewalk saint". She has an inheritance and takes on forgotten people whom no one knows or cares about. She works in a soup kitchen. Every month she sends me a check so that I can get a money order for a friend on Death Row so that he can get a cold soda every day.

But she lives alone and spends most of her time in solitude. Close personal relationships are a challenge for her.

We are wounded people. We have lots of flaws and idiosycracies. Some of us thrive better in close communities, some of us are better suited for more private living.

We all need each others' love, whether we can live together or not.

Mr. Bill said...

Classic book. Good conversation. My two cents = living alone in no way makes someone a second class citizen. Sometimes it is necessary, sometimes it is helpful - temporarily. I don't think it is a good choice for permanent living arrangement. Keep in mind, even if you prefer to live alone you might consider that living in some sort of community (roommate, a family, whatever)is a way of serving others regardless of what you get out of it. At the very least, live alone under advisement from the community.

+ Alan said...

Good words Bill. I don't think anyone was saying anything about "second class citizens." We all have filters through which we interpret things for sure. Anything I would say to anyone about the relative merits of living by one's self would only be out of concern that they be formed as well as possible into the Image of Christ. What you said about temporary vs. permanent were helpful here I think Bill. Sure, there may be a time when someone can live alone for some good reason. But I agree, that it's probably not a good idea as a permanent solution. What some of us are thinking/saying here too probably, is that there are just a lot of fairly bad (read: unhealthy) reasons why one would live by their self - and we want to help steer people away from that. Very interesting conversation indeed. I'll have to pick that book up again soon. Peace.

Kyle said...

That's true, Beth. Bill and Alan, I think you're right on.

Thanks for reading and contributing to the ideas.

Tonya said...

I'm coming to this discussion a bit late, but...

"As we live with people daily, all the anger, hatred, jealousies and fear of others, also the need to dominate, to run away or to hide, seem to rise up ... " I would say this describes my experience since becoming a parent, living with these little people who should be the easiest to love in the whole world! (And they are believe me, most of the time!)

But, perhaps because I care about who they are becoming and because I care about who God is shaping me to become all the tensions of living together rub at the very fiber of who I am. My ideas about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control (oops - sounds like fruits of the Spirit huh?) are stretched and reformed. Who I am in these places as a mom is most definately a place of transformation for me.

It is is beautiful. It is the kind of community where we know and are known, truly, as we are. Flaws and all. Yet God uses this too. I wouldn't be half the person I am without this place...and I am still not even half of what God hopes I will become.

Not here anymore said...

Thanks, Bill. That makes a lot more sense. Well said.

Kyle said...

Thank you, Tonya.